There it lay in front of me, a strapless, satin, ivory gown embellished with floral embroidery, complete with a chapel train and my aunt's promising smile. "We're saving this for when it's your turn," she said.
It was the perfect equation for her. My mother and father never tied the knot, and my aunt didn't have any daughters to pass her wedding dress down to. Little did she know that marriage is the last thing on my 21-year-old mind. It took every fiber in my body not to rain on her bridal parade with a "No thanks."
Don't get me wrong. Her dress was to die for, but taking that walk down the aisle isn't a necessity for me, and a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that many Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 agree with me.
In fact, just 30 percent of survey respondents in the Millennial generation agree that one of the most important things in life is "having a successful marriage," while 52 percent put "being a good parent" in that category.
I'm sure that every girl has dreams about finding her Prince Charming, walking down the aisle, exchanging vows in front of family and friends and living happily ever after. But when we're faced with the realities of relationships in our society, those dreams often get lost along the way, and priorities relating to marriage and parenthood began to shift.
Family Structure in Flux
With the ever changing landscape of family structures in America, the tradition of getting married first and then having children has become old-fashioned to a growing number of young people. Single parenthood by choice is on the rise, and the trend toward having children out of wedlock has been growing for some time now — and in some quarters has been accepted as the norm.
Seventy-two percent of black children are now born outside of marriage, while only 29 percent of white children are born to unwed parents. Sixty-seven percent of African-American households are headed by single parents, compared with 24 percent of white households.
With these developments, it's little surprise that Millennials value parenthood far more than marriage as a life goal. Certainly, living in the same household with unwed parents has shaped my perception of tying the knot. My mother and father didn't need a huge ceremony or a certificate to define their relationship. My brother's birth and my own were testimonies to their love.
Every now and then, a family member would come at them with, "The Bible says having children out of wedlock is a sin," but they never let it faze them. Doing a good job of raising my younger brother and me was their priority.
Over time, marriage has become less common in American households, with married couples representing only 48 percent of U.S. households in 2010. The Pew survey revealed a stark divide between the family experiences of younger and older respondents. Eighty-nine percent of respondents who are 65 and older said that their parents were married while they were growing up, while only 63 percent of Millennials said that their parents were married during their childhood.
"Our attitudes toward relationships are often derived from our parents," observed family therapist Wandra Chenault of the Harlem Counseling Group in an interview. Those interactions "have a huge impact on the way we interact with other people, especially in relationships," she added. "If an individual's parents were never married, then [he or she feels] less pressured to tie the knot." Chenault noted that shotgun weddings, a form of forced marriage linked to unwanted pregnancies, are largely a thing of the past.
Love, making a lifelong commitment and companionship are listed in the Pew survey results as the top three reasons Millennial respondents would get married. However, greater acceptance of casual sex in society might be hindering Millennials from discovering those three qualities in partners.
"Sex has become so casual that there's no commitment; without commitment, marriage will fail," said Chenault. "It also has a lot to do with age. When people are very young, they often run away from commitment."
The Media Is the Message
Pop culture has had a huge influence in shaping Millennial attitudes toward relationships. "A lot of the music that we listen to and the television shows that we watch promote promiscuity and make it seem acceptable" to have commitment-free sex, said Jamal Peters, editor-in-chief of Socially Awkward Magazine, a website targeted toward Millennials. "It's almost like the media glorifies that type of lifestyle and tries to make being married seem boring."
Economic security — long a top reason for getting married — isn't perceived by Millennials as being tied to matrimony, regardless of what statistics might say about the correlation between marriage and income. Many Millennials believe that marital status makes no difference in achieving lifelong goals. Nowadays, marriage isn't necessary to move forward with your career, have social status or be financially stable, in the view of the majority of Millennials responding to the Pew survey.
The media have played a key role in exposing today's generation to alternative family structures, with reality television leading the charge. Single mothers on reality-TV shows, like Kandi Burruss of Real Housewives of Atlanta and Shaunie O'Neal of Basketball Wives, are prime examples of strong, single and successful mothers. Their experiences show that marriage isn't necessary to attain happiness, be successful or raise good children.
That last part is especially important to young adults like me. Whether they're single because they never tied the knot or as a result of divorce, these women have one thing in common: They're capable of raising their children on their own. They don't need a ring on their finger to be good mothers.
Television shows like VH1's Single Ladies glamorize the unmarried life. They show women that wedlock doesn't define who you are and that you can be independent and fabulous. "Seeing examples of alternative lifestyles in the media has opened our generations' eyes to the fact that marriage doesn't always equate to happiness," said Peters. "They've shown us that you can be a good parent and you can achieve your goals without necessarily being married."
Only time will tell if I will take that walk down the aisle, stand in front of my family and friends in my aunt's wedding gown and exchange vows with my soul mate. But if that day never comes, I won't be bothered.
Whatever the future holds for me, whether I'm a co-parent or I'm doing it on my own, I know that when it comes to parenting, I will use the morals that my parents gave me. I don't need a ring, a huge ceremony or a marriage certificate to define who I am. I'll let the way I raise my child speak to that.
As a generation, we've learned that there are more important aspects to life than marital status. Becoming good parents and being able to instill the right values in the next generation are at the top of our list.
Brandee Sanders is a freelance journalist from Harlem, N.Y.